Blogs » Your Advocate: an editor's blog » When might headlines be better off saying less?


Our ethics board discussed this month a familiar yet painful subject: suicide coverage.

As I blogged recently, this is a subject upon which we tread lightly but remain steadfast in our belief that it should be reported. Local editor Becky Cooper, who has been at the Victoria Advocate for 27 years, noted the newspaper has reported on suicide for as long as she has been working here and probably longer than that.

Nonetheless, we try to revisit particularly sensitive issues to make sure we're handling in the best possible way. For example, a year or so ago we stopped including suicides in our police blotter because of media guidelines encouraging us to not criminalize the event. The top concern of these recommendations is to avoid suicide contagion. Experts say some media coverage can contribute to other suicides.

That is why the recommendations suggest avoiding the word "suicide" in the headline and, in general, downplaying the event. That runs a bit contrary to standard practice of newspaper headline writing when we want to be as precise and direct as possible.

Because of this conflict, we have at times erred in including too much information in a headline about suicide, the ethics board agreed. We need to be extra vigilant about using caution with the wording of these story titles.

The board wanted to re-emphasize instructions I sent earlier to our copy editors:

Mental health experts advise to not write "suicide" or "takes own life" or "dies from gunshot wound" in the headline. That information will appear in the brief story, but the headline should be something like this: 44-year-old Victoria man found dead at home

The other aspect we focused on was the difference between online and print presentation of news. In the newspaper, we typically place short stories about suicide on an inside page with smaller headlines.

On our website, the latest news stories all appear first at the top of our list of latest news. They move down the list and off the home page as other latest news gets published. All of the headlines for these stories are the same size.

Board members discussed how this process can give online readers the impression the stories at the top of the latest news lists are the most important. That's not our intent; a web page and a newspaper front page are different and do not function in the same way. We do emphasize certain stories on our home page, but they go in designated spots with art, such as video, attached. We regularly update the site with latest news to encourage people to return to the site and to take advantage of the immediacy the digital medium allows.

Nonetheless, we recognize readers might perceive any latest news item that happens to be there when they visit the site as the top story. Ethics board members considered some ideas for handling stories about suicide differently, such as intentionally routing them out of the latest news list and into a less-visible spot on our website.

The board was split on this option, but eventually agreed to keep our existing website routing in place. Instead, board members wanted to be sure we pay closer attention to our online headlines and be sure they follow the guidelines we've spelled out.

Our online headlines often are different from those in print because of how readers look at a newspaper page differently from a website. We also often post online headlines much faster than print ones. Still, we want to be sure we apply the same guidelines to headlines about suicide.

This discussion prompted me to check in with Jennifer Contreras-Glover, a brave suicide survivor, who shared her story with the Advocate in April of last year. She advocated for more community awareness of suicide and support for those who have dealt with the emotional issue in some way.

She said the community has not formed a needed support group and hoped this would yet happen. With that in mind, I share the information we presented back in April:

Want to start a support group?

Contact Judith Tyler or Lane Johnson with the Gulf Bend Center at 361-575-0611.

Feeling in crisis?

Gulf Bend Center has a 24-Hour Toll Free Crisis Hotline that can be reached at 1-877-723-3422. The hotline is accredited through the American Association of Suicidology. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is also available and can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.

Need a place to go?

Gulf Bend Center's Crisis Center has licensed professional counselors available who can help with suicide prevention. The center is also accredited through the American Association of Suicidology.